A Joy That Leaps Within Us

Christmas lights at Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina

We’re especially drawn by the tender joy and companionship in that part of the Christmas story where Mary visits her older relative Elizabeth and is greeted with these words, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you are carrying.” Elizabeth adds, “As soon as I heard you greeting, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1: 41-44). We know so well the story of their shared lives—of how Elizabeth’s child John would eventually pave the way for the coming of Mary’s child Jesus who would be proclaimed as the Messiah.

Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas writes, “The Christmas story begins with joy—visceral joy, ecstatic joy, a joy that moves through the characters’ bodies, drawing their lives together.” But it doesn’t stop there. He reminds us that we’re included in the story. “This is also our story, of you and me and the life we share. We’ve been brought together because of the joy of the gospel—a joy that leaps within us, stretching us toward one another, the ecstasy of shared life, fellowship through Christ, community in the Holy Spirit” (The Mennonite, Dec. 2015: 8).

Elizabeth’s heartwarming greeting elicits Mary’s song praising God and reveling in the way God is turning our world upside down. Lauren Winner says she once read Mary’s song on a park bench at a jazz festival and this prompted the recognition that it’s like jazz.  A jazz “musician takes what she knows of scales and modes and the melodic theme and creates something new—in response to what the other members of the band are doing, or even in response to some random ambient noise” (The Christian Century, Dec. 9, 2015: 21).

The genius of jazz lies in improvisation. As Mary responds to what God is doing she latches onto the example of Hannah’s response to God’s gift-pregnancy of the child who would become the prophet Samuel. We can easily recognize how Mary improvises Hannah’s song. “My heart exults in the Lord,” Hannah sings. She also rejoices in how God inverts the social order, “He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (I Samuel 2: 1-10).

But Hannah isn’t making up her song on the spot either. She’s drawing on the yet older song that Moses’ sister Miriam sang after God provided a way for the former Hebrew slaves and to cross the Red Sea and delivered them from Pharaoh’s powerful pursuing army.

Jazz moves, swings, and improvises by working with a common theme in response to a new situation. That’s what these three women in the Bible are doing. We can draw inspiration from them and do likewise in response to the challenges and opportunities of our time. As a people of faith, how do we improvise and swing in our present, ever-changing American social and spiritual landscape?

Lauren Winner writes, “In response to these changes, the thing to do is not to despair; nor is it to invent from whole cloth. The things to do, rather is to invent from the cords we have. Pianist Frank Barrett says that ‘the best jazz is always on the verge of falling apart.’ This is true of churches, too. The best church is always on the verge of falling apart—and life with God has always involved making new combinations from the essential practices of our faith” (The Christian Century, Dec. 9, 2015: 21).

God’s Peace Stands Guard

A group of us recently went to hear a Celtic Christmas concert at George Mason University. I love the rhythm and sound of Celtic music. It has its own kind of spirituality rooted in the soil and history of Ireland. Later that evening we listened to President Obama’s address to our nation about the threat of violent acts of terrorism from Islamic jihadists. It was like being transported from one world into another.

What Obama had to say was sobering. I recognize his responsibility as president to keep American citizens safe. Yet I’m concerned that actions such as aerial bombings and drone strikes in foreign countries further escalate the cycle of violence, kill innocent civilians, and increase the flow of refugees. Equally concerning were the critical responses of CNN commentators following the president’s address. One was especially alarmist and clearly desired stronger rhetoric.

Such rhetoric arrived the next day when a major presidential candidate advocated barring all Muslims from entering our country. Then the president of an evangelical Christian university told the university community that he was carrying a concealed weapon and urged them to do the same in order to stop any potential Muslim threat. Whatever else we might say about that, it’s certainly not the gospel.

In a time like this I’m drawn to our Advent scripture passages from Isaiah and Philippians. The prophet Isaiah is responding to a situation of war and conflict in the Middle East that mirrors what’s happening in our day. The small nations in the region were picking sides and aligning themselves with the bigger powers of Egypt and Assyria, primarily based to which side they thought would win. The prophet talks of the boots of tramping warriors and of garments rolled in blood (9: 5). Armies were sweeping through the region and destroying towns and cities.

Isaiah’s council to people of faith is to not place their hopes for security in such national alliances and to instead trust in God. “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (12: 2). We will want to consider what such trust looks like in our world that’s awash in high-powered guns and weapons of war.

The words of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians are equally instructive (4: 4-7). He counsels Christians to not become consumed by our anxieties or to become victimized by our problems. We are instead to be known for our deep sense of joy and gentleness or forbearance. Two things make this possible. The first is our experience of Christ present in our midst. The other is the assurance that “the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.”

Paul uses a military metaphor of God’s peace standing guard. Because we have that assurance we don’t need to scan the horizon for new threats. Alert, yes, anxious, no. There is an appropriate level of concern but the kind of anxiety swirling around right now is not fitting for followers of Jesus who have placed their trust in God.

Advent as a Pregnant Time

Given that I’m male it’s a little audacious for me to talk about being pregnant. My closest experience has been living with my wife during her pregnancies with our three children—I certainly can’t claim any firsthand knowledge. Nevertheless, from those memories, I can characterize it as being filled with anticipation, of feeling awkward, and finally a desire to just have it end.

The first Advent season was a pregnant time. Both Mary and Elizabeth with expecting babies. Their husbands, Zechariah and Joseph were, we could say, a bit clueless. The women were much more aware of what was happening. But to be fair, their husbands eventually caught on and certainly supported their wives. It was all a bit awkward. New life was gestating. Tummies were getting big and it was a little hard to keep one’s balance. Things were moving, taking shape, growing. It involved so many hopes and dreams of what God was doing in their world.

This may sound a little sacrilegious but I like to think that God was pregnant. I know it’s a stretch to imagine God with a big extended tummy, walking awkwardly and slightly off balance. But isn’t that much better than imagining God as a stern judge in his chambers keeping track of our sins or as a fierce warrior on the battlefield slaying his enemies?

Speaking of God as a pregnant mother isn’t new. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God as being in labor bringing new life  (44:14) and as a mother comforting her children (66:13). The medieval Christian mystic Julian of Norwich is known for her female images of God. Her words have been made into a poem by Jean Janzen and put to music by Janet Peachy. It’s now in our church hymnal, “Mothering God, you gave me birth in the bright morning of this world. Creator, source of every breath, you are my rain, my wind, my sun.”

Just as in the first century, our world is also pregnant and we wait in anticipation of the new life taking form in and among us. In this Advent season, we will want to be especially aware of some of the awkward, hopeful, pregnant possibilities in our personal lives, in our church, and in our world.

 

Lockdown America

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, or about 1.6 million prisoners according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That compares to around 100 prisoners per 100, 000 residents in comparable countries. We’re five times more likely to lock people up, often for nonviolence crimes, hence the epitaph “Lockdown America.”

It’s not just the numbers. Another huge part of the problem is the racial disparity between those who are incarcerated. In our white population, there are 380 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Among Hispanics, its 966 prisoners for every 100,000 people, and among blacks its 2,207 prisoners for every 100,000 people. That’s why our prison labor system is sometime referred to as the new Jim Crow.

I used to take groups of students to participate in a three-day, inmate-led training program called Alternatives to Violence at the Graterford maximum security prison near Philadelphia. The program included role plays and discussions designed to help us understand the causes of violence, to learn how to communicate better, how to respond nonviolently to potentially violent situations, and how to build community. It was always hard to say goodbye at the end of the training. Inmates hung around talking until the guards became adamant that we need to break it up.

No one was diabolical enough to design our prison system. It’s the culmination of broken neighborhoods, broken homes, broken school systems, drugs, tough-on-crime politicians, and our collective fears. Our modern prison system actually grew out of efforts to reform ancient justice practices based on revenge and corporal punishment. This was carried out in the ancient world through gruesome public torture and executions.

Such reforms have only pushed the whole nasty business into the shadows of our social conscience. We now lock bodies away, sometimes forever. Inmates have told me that “you don’t do time—time does you.” Your human dignity is continually assaulted and you slowly shrivel up and die. More than one inmate has told me, “I just don’t want to die in prison.” That’s the ultimate indignity!

Jesus experienced such torture when he was flogged and then crucified, the cruelest form of torture the Romans could devise. Surely, his ability to absorb all that abuse without seeking retaliation is our model for overcoming hatred and cruelty with self-sacrificing love. What does this mean for those of us who profess to follow Jesus, our tortured and executed savior?

Surely, it calls for repentance because many professing Christians have been part of creating Lockdown America while others of us looked the other way.  It also means getting as personally involved as possible. The powerful thing about spending time at Graterford prison is that we engaged each other as fellow humans. The inmates could hardly believe they were sitting there talking with college students. And we no longer saw the inmates as faceless criminals. All our stereotypes and social barriers began to fall away.

Building Community

Last week a crew of eleven friends and members of my former Shalom congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia came to help us with the initial deconstruction of the part of our church building where we will create our new worship space. I can hardly express my gratitude for their labor of love. They were the face of Christ here in Fairfax.

We’re not only creating a new worship space, we’re creating community in many different ways. Members of our congregation provided food and lodging for our volunteers. Then a whole other group of local people from Fairfax, including an emerging congregation that is sharing space in our building, came to clean the building. Lots of relationships were built as we worked and ate together.

Our church property has been both a blessing and an albatross for us. It’s strategically located in the center of the City of Fairfax, a major suburb of Washington DC, and includes a two acre woods with a small stream called Daniels Run flowing through it. We have been able to rent space in our building to several immigrant Korean, Chinese, and Hispanic congregations. The building is solidly built but is an albatross in the sense that it feels dated and worn and the worship space is on the third floor.

Where we meet can make a huge difference in our worship and in our ability to create a faith community. Architecture matters! Our renovation will move our worship space to the ground floor and make it handicap accessible. It will better serve our congregation as well as all the other congregations that share our space. Our dream is that it will also create opportunities for yet unseen ministries in our community.

Scrambling Our Categories of Religiousity

There’s an old saying that “birds of a feather flock together.” It’s common for human communities to shun people who are different from us or who disregard what we consider to be accepted standards of behavior. One of the reasons why many churches don’t grow is because we’ve become too comfortable with a fellowship of like-minded and like-mannered people.

A common criticism is that Christians are judgmental. Such judgmental attitudes among religious people have probably been with us ever since humans have gathered to worship and form religious communities. Jesus completely broke with such religious prejudices when he hung out with and even partied with all the wrong kinds of people. The religious leaders complained that he ate with tax-collectors and sinners and accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19).

Think of all the different ways Jesus broke the mold of who they thought self-respecting, righteous people are and what they should act like. Jesus wasn’t only doing his religious duty by “ministering” to such people, he was their friend and obviously enjoyed being with them. Another matter is that these people weren’t necessarily folks who needed help. Instead, people like Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene didn’t fit into the conventional sensibilities of those who considered themselves to be religious.

What do we make of Jesus’ response to those who criticized him of having too much fun hanging out with such people? Who is sick, who needs a physician, who are the righteous, and who are the sinners? Jesus scrambled all these categories. And to make sure they got it, he quoted the Prophet Hosea, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice” (6:6).

How are the categories of religiosity constructed in our churches and in our community? In other words, who wouldn’t receive a warm welcome in our church? In what ways is Jesus scrambling those categories for us?

The Lit Bush

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My training in biblical studies has given me a deep appreciation for the long and dusty road of history. I still have my first Old Testament history textbook. It opened up new worlds for me as I became familiar with the scope and breadth of people and cultures that have long since disappeared. So much is gone but then we can’t even completely know ourselves and those closest to us in our present life.

A dear friend is brilliant, insightful man who has always had the weakness of harboring resentments. I sometimes see the same tendency in myself and I pray that I can grow old with grace. When we reflect on our lives we can easily become consumed by resentment, guilt, and regret in a way that hides the sheer miracle of having lived and of being alive.

When we reflect more deeply, we can see that even troubles which we brought on ourselves contain a hidden gem. Difficulties can be the greatest friend of our soul. I wonder if that’s what Isaiah meant when he said that God will “swallow up the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. (25:7).

The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas has written a beautiful poem about looking back on life with regrets about having missed an opportunity. Of wishing we could do something differently.

I have seen the light break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great prize, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. 

Life is not hurrying on 
to a receding future nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush. To a brightness
that seems as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

At the heart of this poem is a realization that all time is contained in the eternity of God. As John O’ Donohue insightfully recognizes:

Your time is not just past or future. Your time here always inhabits the circle of your soul. All your time is gathered, and even your future time is waiting here for you. In a certain sense your past is not gone but rather is hidden in your memory. Your time is the deeper seed of the eternity that is waiting to welcome you (Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, 187).

Reinventing Halloween and All Saints Day

Ivan

My grandson dressed up as a mad scientist for Halloween

Children look forward to dressing up in costumes and joining their friends to go from house to house, saying trick-or treat, and collecting candy on Halloween. Its lots of fun chaperoned by responsible adults. It’s a way to build our courage by poking fun at scary things rather than being afraid or even controlled by them. That’s good! Furthermore, we have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously. Halloween reminds us to lighten up a bit.

Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve” or “holy evening” which has its roots in the ancient Christian three-day observance of “All-hallow-tide” the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.

The trick-or-treat part appears to be rooted in a folk belief that some departed spirits like to play harmless pranks on Halloween. Carving pumpkins, giving candied apples, and other treats also appears to be related to the tradition of not eating meat during the three-day observance of “All-hallow-tide.” All Saints Day celebrations follow Halloween in many parts of the world but unfortunately only Halloween gets much attention in our country.

All Saints Day is a major holiday in the Philippines where I and my family once lived. People bring lots of candles, food, and music to their family burial plots in the cemeteries. Prayers and blessings are said. People camp out in the cemetery through the night and spend the whole next day visiting with relatives and neighbors. They bring photos of loved ones who have died and tell lots of stories in memory of them. There’s a sense that their dead ancestors’ spirits are there with them. It’s a big multi-generational party.

How can we revive this in our culture? Dressing up in costumes and going trick-or-treating pales in comparison. Some churches organize a “Saint Fest” party for the whole family on Halloween. Wouldn’t it be great if we’d follow this with a worship service and intergenerational fellowship meal our church cemeteries on All Saints Day? We could remember our loved ones who passed away. We could tell stories about the struggles, victories, and defeats of past generations in our families and our churches. We are who we are because of who they were—saints and sinners—ordinary people with strengths and weaknesses who passed their faith down to us.

The Joy of Serving

Cory

Faith in God as our creator and sustainer enables us to live generously and inspires us to serve others with joy. Through serving others, we serve ourselves because we’re all connected in the same web of life. That’s why Jesus told his disciple to stop being so preoccupied about the basic necessities of life. The same God who feeds the sparrow also sustains us.

This raises a fundamental question. Why do we Americans, as citizens of the wealthiest nation on earth, feel so insecure? This sense of insecurity drives both our domestic and our foreign policy. Part of the reason is that most of the wealth in our country is concentrated in the top 1% and the fact that the top 20% are gaining wealth much faster than middle-class, working class, and poor people. Inequality is greater than at any time since the 1920s. But this can’t be the whole reason because even poor people in our country have more resources than many people in other parts of the world.

Structural injustice diminishes all of us—even those who benefit most from it. We need to recognize that such injustice is rooted in a narrative where we tell ourselves that the world is a hostile place and we therefore need to take care of ourselves through all possible means. This story contains lots of fear and insecurity. It’s the opposite of the biblical narrative of gratitude to God as our provider, which flows over into generosity and service.

This is what was going on when James and John approached Jesus with their special request to have positions of power and honor in the new world order they assumed he would inaugurate (Mark 12: 35-45). Talk about crass opportunism. We look out for ourselves and the devil take the hindmost. No wonder the other disciples were so upset went they caught wind of it. But they were angry for the wrong reason.

They all thought leadership was a matter of domination and control. They had been with Jesus all this time and they still didn’t grasp the truth that true leadership is instead about service. We easily identify with Jesus’ self-absorbed disciples. Like them, we seek places of honor and privilege. Like them we want greatness without pain or hard work. And like them, we can talk a good talk about serving but we don’t want to clean the toilets. We miss the joy of serving.

A lesson I take from this is that our social activism needs to be rooted in service, otherwise it rings hollow. I’m often astounded by all the opportunities for service that surround us. As followers of Jesus, serving others with joy is one of the songs of our heart. The second stanza of the hymn, Will You Let Me be Your Servant, especially speaks to this: “We are pilgrims on a journey; we are travelers on the road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.”

Worship as the Work of the People

In her book Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott describes being slowly drawn into the fellowship of a small church during a troubled time in her life. It was the singing and the warm community that drew her in. She writes, “I couldn’t believe how run-down [the church] was, with terrible linoleum that was brown and over shined, and plastic stained-glass windows.  But it has a choir of five black women and one rather Amish-looking white man making all that glorious noise, and a congregation of thirty people or so, radiating kindness and warmth.”

I have had a similar experience with our church. For a fleeting moment I considered turning around and leaving when my wife and I first walked through the doors into our depressing basement entryway that felt like we were walking back into the 1960s. I couldn’t do that because I’d accepted an invitation to preach. So we climbed two flights of stairs to the sanctuary where we encountered a very friendly and surprisingly diverse group of people who drew us in. I began to think that being the pastor of our small church here in the City of Fairfax could be a fun challenge—and it has been.

I find myself learning and growing with our church. Our worship is the heart and soul of our congregation. It forms us as a caring, spiritual community. It’s here that we experience God alive in our midst as God our creator, Jesus our teacher and redeemer, and the Spirit who empowers us. David Ray, the author of Wonderful Worship in Small Churches, says that worship is the work of the people and the fruit of their gifts.  Likewise, the author of 1 Peter says that each of us has received a gift to use in serving each other (4:10). David Ray writes:

  • Authentic Christian worship is the work of all the people—short and simple.
  • Authentic Christian worship is a workshop in which all the people are encouraged and supported in naming their spiritual gifts and developing them as gifts for God and God’s people, as well as their own sense of self-fulfillment.
  • Authentic Christian worship provides the precious opportunity in which those now employed in the community know deep in their heart that they are not useless and unusable. . . At its deepest core, Christian worship is both a gift to God as well as to the people themselves.

Such worship is like a structured but informal folk dance in which all participate rather than a concert put on by select performers for an audience.